Sukki Singapora: The Dark Side of Burlesque

Burlesque has a dark side, and it isn’t all about empowering our peers, but it could be.

On the surface, the enticing lights illuminate Burlesque as if it were the perfect industry. Women supporting other women. Men supporting other men. Body positivity, and the joy of knowing that you can be anyone you want to be, explore any pathway creatively, and make Burlesque your own in a world without rules.

When asked by those on the outside whether ‘anyone can do burlesque’, one-thousand showgirl and showboy voices reply in unison that yes! Burlesque is a non-judgemental, safe-space where you can finally learn to shimmy off the shackles of your mere mortal self-deprecation to become a more confident, sassy version of you. But is this truly the case? Or is burlesque hiding a deeper, darker, dystopian secret?

 

Sukki Singapora, by Nick Delaney

Sukki Singapora, by Nick Delaney

 

 

A few years ago, I had climbed the burlesque ropes to a point where I realised that the art of burlesque was my calling.

I had trained in classical ballet. I had always had an explorative, open mind, and I came alive when in front of an audience. I had a spark, and I quickly realised that burlesque was the catalyst that would turn my spark into a flame.

It was more than a hobby. It was obvious that its glittering grasp had left me hooked beyond any other civilian vocation. I decided, in that moment, that I was going to take a risk. That I would quit my day job, and in a terrifying moment of sink-or-swim, force myself to become the best I could be as a professional burlesque artist. My art would pay my way in life, and thus I had to learn how to be not just incredible at my faculty, but exceptional at marketing it too. I had to become a businesswoman.

Now, many would say that the two are incapable of going hand-in-hand, and that to choose one compromises the other, but here’s the thing: to ‘make it’ as a burlesque artist you have to have more than just a great act – you have to have the ability to promote that act. Why? If not, you will be sucked into the void of incredibly talented, penniless sitar players and impoverished geniuses, unable to get by.

This is the harsh reality for the majority of us who are performing our butts off. Burlesque can be an expensive business, and without the financial support from someone or something else, our journey to success can be a bottomless struggle.

 

Thus, on the 20th February 2015 I unveiled what was the biggest act of my career at the time, my Giant Diamond Ring routine.

It was not only two years in the making, one year of costuming and another of choreography, it was financially the biggest investment I’d ever made in my journey. It was to be my golden-ticket towards gigs that would transform my art from ‘getting by’ and ‘surviving’ to finally being able to pay my way. Yes, I knew at the time that I was still learning my craft, and I also knew that in order to get the level of bookings I dreamed of I would need to promote it like never before. But what I didn’t know was how quickly it would finally reveal to me that all was not what it seemed in my sacred industry I passionately adored. A dark side of burlesque was about to be revealed, and it would forever leave a bitter-sweet taste in my mouth.

 

Sukki Singapora, by Rachel Sherlock Photography

Sukki Singapora, by Rachel Sherlock Photography

 

The night after my first performance of the act, I knew something was wrong.

My facebook messages had started flashing alarmingly frequently with questions from my dear friends of ‘Are you ok?’ or ‘I’m so sorry this has happened.’  A few scrolls of my timeline later, there it was, staring me in the face. A post shared in every burlesque group or forum you could think of, clearly pointed at my latest act. Scrolling through the comments and reactions I distinctly remember the taste in my mouth, and a feeling that someone I deeply loved had horrifically and unexpectedly betrayed me.

The night of the reveal, one review had gone up which showed my debut performance in a neutral but critical light, yet it was the reaction of my beloved industry which cut the deepest.

‘An empty can rattles the most…’ were the comments.

‘That’s what happens when you sh*t glitter’ was another.

‘The truth will eventually be exposed behind the hype. Talentless.’

But they didn’t stop there. It got to the point where some of them even contacted members in the Burlesque Hall of Fame asking them to pull my application on the grounds of not only being ‘talentless’, but also calling into question my ethnicity.

The worst: ‘I don’t even believe she’s actually Asian. She’s not brown enough.’  Malice I can handle, racism I cannot.

As the tears flowed down my face I realised that those in the burlesque industry I thought were my comrades – my sisters and brothers in fighting for empowerment, encouragement and positivity in our industry – had been harbouring claws the moment I dared to raise my head above the parapet.

 

Suddenly, burlesque wasn’t about love of others’ successes, love of the Art, love of each other and body confidence… burlesque had revealed a dark, competitive, sinister side in all its glory.

Now it would be easy for those reading this who were privy to the criticism to say that some of the comments were deserved, perhaps even justified. An act was promoted that perhaps on the debut night didn’t yet live up to the hype. But here’s the catch: it was never billed as the best act in the world, I had never professed to being the best dancer in the world. But what I had was a unique, impressive gimmick which was to be my one-way-ticket to finally being able to survive on the art I so passionately cared about.

Did I believe the hype? Of course not. Did I feel silly saying it was going to be amazing? Of course I did. But guess what? This was my job. Not my hobby, my job. This was the act that would finally allow me to transition from struggling artist to a professional woman who could hold her head high and support herself.

 

And so what did I do? I didn’t react. I didn’t reply. I held my head high and carried on.

I carried on gracefully in silence for a year. And the act? Several performances later, it went on to be booked as the headline entertainment for the Formula One Grand Prix. It went on to be booked at some of the most extravagant shows I’ve ever seen in my entire life. It went on to give me the freedom as an artist I’d only dreamt about, and I went on to be accepted into the Burlesque Hall of Fame.

 

Sukki Singapora by Coco Haus Photography

Sukki Singapora by Coco Haus Photography

 

But the story doesn’t end there.

You see, this isn’t the start of a witch hunt or petty revenge to expose those who went after me, or criticised me, or bullied me. This is a lesson, because what happened was not simply terribly bad, it turned out to become remarkably good.

Rather than crushing me into giving up, it inspired me to be strong. After all, it is only under extreme pressure that real diamonds are created. Every single day and night I decided to rehearse that act. Every single day and night I worked to prove the haters wrong. Every single month that passed I told myself that a day would come in which I would get to a point where I felt bold enough, talented enough, good enough and brave enough to tell my story. To reveal the truth that was the other side of burlesque.

 

And that day is today.

Why today? Because earlier this year I took all the negativity, all the comments, all the criticism and poured it into a new act. I wanted to show every single burlesque baby starting out, or every single girl or boy who had been slammed for an act they cared about, how to cope and move forward towards a positive future. And so, following the transformation of my diamond ring act, I decided to create something to once and for all silence the naysayers.

I combined my new-found stage presence and honed performance with something I had been hiding for far too long: my singing voice. Rather than let this break me, I let this empower me to create an act that – stripped back from the gimmicks – would hit back at the negativity without a single inch of room for doubt. And so here I am, writing this from Hollywood after the video blew the minds of some of the most incredible and influential people in our industry.

 

 

I hope some of you may take the time to watch it, knowing now the journey I’ve come on to get me there. I hope some of you may now be able to speak up about your own experiences in this industry. I hope some of you may now not be afraid to be criticised, or even bullied, knowing there is always a light at the end of the tunnel if you stay strong.

And finally, I hope to reveal the unspoken reality that even though it seems that burlesque is not what many of us thought it would be, that there is still a way we can change it to become that. There are still many of us here that really do care about the values we thought we were signing up for when we started down this path.

And whilst I spend my life in varying degrees of striptease, the irony is, I’ve never felt more exposed. But it’s time to stop being afraid to stand up and say that our glamorous, sugar-coated industry might not be the supportive haven we all imagined when we donned our pasties for the first time, but know that there are enough of us that can make it that way, if we truly care, if we truly stand up together.

Sukki Singapora

21st Century Burlesque Magazine
21st Century Burlesque Magazine

<p>Quoted in major international newspapers and held in high esteem and affection by the international burlesque community, 21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene since 2007. Founded and edited by Holli-Mae Johnson.</p>

12 Comments
  • Ruth
    April 26, 2017

    Finding it so sad that after all this the haters are still posting bullshit here about Sukki but hiding their names #sad #getalife

  • Aisha F
    March 11, 2017

    Haters gone hate.

    Anon posted “Claiming to be the “first” to accomplish various things”. As far as I’m aware she’s only claimed to be the first Burlesque Performer to legally perform in Singapore, which is absolutely true. I’d love to know who else blazed that trail for her?!

    “Saving the non-white women but living the life of a privileged white woman.” What does that even mean?? How does the life she leads make her accomplishments any less valid or her heritage any less real? Is Beyonce less black because she lives a life of luxury?

    Sukki as a performer might not be your cup of tea and there’s no doubt that there are more experienced and polished performers out there, but the same could be said of Dita.

    A number of fairly well known people in the community set out to deliberately and maliciously cause problems and try and set her back – people who should know better. I’d be very interested to see if any of the people who made the original comments on Facebook a couple of years ago have the gumption to back up their words now that Sukki has faced this head on.

  • Anon
    March 10, 2017

    Whilst some elements may have been exaggerated, that’s marketing. I think the main bug bear for other performers in the UK was and continues to be jealousy.

    We all see Sukki making her way from being a little known, new performer in Chester and start herself off on a different route; a route that started working for her very quickly and it scared people who had been plugging away with the same gigs and the same ‘cliques’ for years and getting nowhere. We see pictures of Sukki with David Beckham and Snoop Dogg and *of course* it makes people feel envious but that hasn’t just ‘happened’ things like this can only be as a result of dedication and hard work.

    No amount of ‘exaggeration’ justifies the vitriol that has been – and still is – directed toward Sukki. Instead of feeling so much anger towards a woman who is successful in her chosen field, people need to up their own game.

  • hollimae
    hollimae
    March 8, 2017

    Without bias towards any of the views expressed here or above, I think it would be a real step forward if people would put their names to their opinions and beliefs. Sukki put her name to hers, Glo has put her name to her comment, as have others. I put my name on all my reviews and opinion pieces.Those who have remained anonymous have a right to express their opinions appropriately, but have the integrity and courage to stand by them. Holli-Mae (Editor)

  • Anon
    March 8, 2017

    There is a certain irony in this performer talking about “supporting the industry” and “standing up together” when she has essentially built a career on half-truths and claiming to be the “first” to accomplish various things (erasing the history of the women who *actually* came first and blazed a trail for her in the process). I am all for supporting women in this industry. And that means speaking out when someone tramples over women in pursuit of their own success.

  • Anon
    March 7, 2017

    This is a person who grew up in UK, dad is from Singapore but she only decided a few years ago to adopt the Singpore label cos it was more exciting and exotic. She claims all the exoticism of being part Singapore but lives as a privileged western woman. Not commentin on her passing as white but some might. Maybe that’s why people have somethin to say about her being desi. Saving the non-white women but living the life of a privileged white woman. OK to save the people when you dont live in their country just sayin. #whitefeminism

  • Glo
    March 7, 2017

    I echo what Performer says, well done at stating something quite awkward in a good way. Being mean is bad but expressing legit concerns and frustrations is different. It doesnt need to be negative, but can be constructive. Pity it’s taken 2 years for this to be talked about.

  • Performer
    March 1, 2017

    The burlesque world can be supportive and it can be a minefield to negotiate. Abuse is never ok. However I think some context would help people, including the writer, understand why people reacted the way they did to the somewhat neutral review referred to in this article.

    Many in the UK scene have seen Sukki start as a new performer based out of Chester, then quickly and consistently exaggerate her achievements quite excessively, deciding to use the Singaporean ambassador label after a blogger noted her heritage. Since then, there have been many examples of when the truth has been exaggerated or spun. I am not going to go into specifics as it is not productive to make accusations which are based on heresay, however there is also actual evidence that some claims may not be able to be substantiated if you research online or talk to people who have been involved.

    This article suggests this is approach viewed as self-promotion rather than lying, which explains a lot, and clearly that can work in the wider world. I’m sure lots of celebs do the same and there is no doubt that Sukki (or her promotional team if she has one) is talented in this area. Burlesque history suggests other performers have also done this type of promotion. There is not a clear-cut moral judgement to be made about promoting oneself this way.

    But in terms of those working in the same field, you can’t fib about your success and work without earning it, and expect to earn the respect and support of your peers in doing so. Realistically, you have to expect that you will anger people who are working hard to earn their way, if you claim success and fame under false/questionable pretences. What the writer sees as self promotion, other performers see as untruths, because they are working to earn their hype rather than faking it til they make it. I get the feeling that the writer is not fully aware of the impact her actions have had. Of course, there are different ways of viewing each approach, obviously, but this could provide at least some clarification on why there was a negative reaction.

    I’m posting anonymously because I fear backlash. I have no desire to hurt anyone and encourage people to think before commenting in anger either about this statement or about another performer. However, this is something that I and many others have been aware of for years, and I think it needs saying, plainly and honestly. Hopefully this will help clarify the situation and let everyone move forward without so much whispering and bad feeling.

  • Leah
    March 1, 2017

    Just the reassurance I needed to hear regarding my current venture. Thank you!

  • Ewa
    February 28, 2017

    Well done Sukki, you are a true inspiration. Not only for the performer in you but also the business woman, nobody can promote themselves better. Your story is incredible and its giving me strength to push forward and do what I love without worrying. Xxx

  • February 28, 2017

    What an amazing and inspirational reas that was. I doubt myself constantly, about my abilities, my appearance, the quality of my performance. You are amazing. Thank you for making me feel like I can do this!!!

  • Ulf
    February 27, 2017

    That was inspiring. And I loved the video and your singing. You responded to what happened with dignity and now you are achieving your dream. Well done.

Share your thoughts on this feature...